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Declaring breakthrough, Netanyahu and Smotrich gear up to replace Knesset speaker

Current speaker says he won’t delay swap, which will allow next coalition to advance bills to override High Court and allow Deri to serve as minister despite suspended jail term

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem, November 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionist party head MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem, November 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing parties announced on Tuesday morning that they’d unlocked a key next step toward establishing their coalition, as Religious Zionism agreed to lend the votes necessary for installing a new Knesset speaker who will help advance agenda items — some of them highly contentious — necessary to complete the government puzzle.

“Religious Zionism is not opposed to the appointment of a temporary Knesset speaker and [on Monday night] it agreed to prime minister-designate Netanyahu’s request for the appointment of a temporary Knesset speaker immediately,” read a joint statement from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Religious Zionism.

After weeks of tense coalition negotiations and periodic stalemates, the two parties also said they’ve had a breakthrough and are “on the verge” of signing a formal coalition agreement, with their next meeting expected later in the day.

Along with their negotiating teams, Netanyahu and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich met for three hours on Monday evening, just days after their parties tossed recriminations at each other for holding up the formation of the right-wing and religious government Netanyahu will lead.

The parties said they had reached “agreement on most issues,” but did not provide further details.

With the appointment of a new Knesset speaker, the coalition will likely seek to pass a bill, reportedly demanded by ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, that would enable him to be sworn in as a minister alongside the rest of the incoming government despite having been handed a suspended sentence for tax fraud earlier this year.

The attorney general has said that the Central Elections Committee should determine whether the current, vaguely worded law blocks a person who was given a suspended sentence from becoming a cabinet minister.

Knesset faction leaders at the swearing-in ceremony for the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In order to bypass the current law, Deri — who is set to become minister of health and the interior and who served out a prison term for corruption earlier in his political career — is said to be demanding immediate legislation to clarify that only persons sentenced to custodial terms, versus suspended ones, are blocked from becoming ministers.

In addition, the new coalition is expected to quickly push through a so-called override clause that would enable Knesset members to reenact legislation struck down by the High Court of Justice. Among other things, such a clause could preempt any legal challenges to Deri’s ministerial appointment. Critics have warned that an override clause would severely disrupt the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature.

Likud sources say the party may submit a formal request to swap the Knesset speaker as early as Wednesday, a step that would require the support of Religious Zionism’s seven MKs in order to get the 61 signatures necessary to petition the current speaker to convene a vote.

Current Speaker Mickey Levy, of Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, said on Tuesday after the coalition breakthrough that he would not stand in the way of a move to name a replacement.

“I do not intend to deliberately delay the election of the next speaker of the Knesset,” said Levy at a Reichman University conference.

“I have great respect for the institution I chair, and an orderly transition of power is a supreme democratic value in my view. When the request of 61 Knesset members arrives, I will examine it and convene the Knesset plenum according to the law and the Supreme Court ruling on the matter within a few days, subject to the plenum agenda,” Levy added.

According to a 2020 High Court ruling, a petition signed by 61 MKs forces the vote to “take place as soon as possible,” at a date determined by the current speaker, according to Assaf Shapira, director of the political reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy speaks to freshman Knesset members a day before the 25th Knesset opens, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud plans to install what it calls a “temporary” Knesset speaker, part of the party’s strategy to take control of legislative machinery without committing to a formal division of hotly contested jobs.

“There is no such thing as a temporary Knesset speaker,” Shapira said. Rather, Likud can functionally appoint a temporary speaker by electing a candidate with the understanding that he will later quit the seat, enabling a new election.

Although Shapira said that a Knesset speaker is “almost impossible” to remove — requiring the vote of 90 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs — installing a new speaker after an election or after the current one resigns is easy.

Between the swearing in of the new Knesset on November 15 and the swearing in of a new government, expected in December, a speaker is chosen by a simple open voting procedure that may include several candidates.

“But if the speaker resigns, then there is no problem and a vote is held again. This is what will happen now,” Shapira said.

Then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (R), Then-Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (L) and Likud Knesset Member Amir Ohana (C) attend a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu loyalists Yariv Levin and Amir Ohana are seen as top contenders for the temporary role, in part because they are trusted and also because they are seen to be comfortably slated for more lucrative positions for which they would vacate the seat when asked.

Levin in particular has been discussed as a possible foreign or justice minister. He is currently leading Likud’s ongoing coalition negotiations with the far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties expected to form the government. Ohana’s name has also been floated as a possible foreign minister.

In his Tuesday comments, Levy said the prospect of an override clause was a threat to Israel’s democracy.

“The next extreme right-wing and conservative government wants to dismantle all the checks and balances,” he said. “The democratic regime in Israel is under threat. This is not an exaggeration. The demand to pass an override clause with a majority of only 61 Knesset members threatens the democratic soul of the country.”

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